India Today @ Olympics: Yihan Wang stands in Saina Nehwal's way to gold
Indian badminton is in top flight and the London Olympics are the best chance for queen Saina Nehwal and company to show that they are capable of winning medals.
On the eve of the competition, Saina and company were away from the media glare in the host city. In a way, by shutting herself away from the rest of the world Saina has tried to focus hard on the challenge ahead.
The whole format of the Olympic badminton competition has changed and a round-robin format before the knockout makes it a level-playing field.
It is not as if this radical change happened overnight. In 2004, at Athens, when champion Lin Dan made a first round exit, it sent shock waves across the fraternity. The World Badminton Federation wanted to change it to a round-robin format the very next time in Beijing, but it was not accepted.
Undoubtedly, the cynosure from the Indian point of view is Saina Nehwal. It has been a long journey from Beijing to London for the Indian icon as she has scared even the more aggressive Chinese shuttlers.
If there is one single athlete who has changed the face of the sport in India, it is Saina Nehwal. By performing at the highest levels and improving her game and fitness, this is the chanced for Saina to deliver.
Saina has changed a lot and is not the same player who lost in the quarter-finals in Beijing.
There are 16 groups each in the men's and women's singles respectively. The winner of each group advances to the quarter-finals stage. "This is a good format. It will ensure that one bad performance will not hurt a player's chances in the Games," Prakash Padukone told Mail Today.
Saina is ranked fourth and placed in a group with world no. 55 Lianne Tan of Belgium and world no. 65 Sabrina Jaquet of Switzerland in Group E. The Indian has not played either of these opponents before.
Once she comes through her group, Saina is likely to face 14th seed Yao Jie of The Netherlands. The Indian leads 3-2 in head-to-head record.
If Saina overcomes Yao, she could run into former All England champion Tine Baun, who has not been in good form this year and has already lost to Saina in two meetings.
Thereafter, Saina will possibly encounter her first Chinese opponent -- top seed and world champion Yihan Wang, in the semi-finals. Saina has a 0-5 record against Wang.
"If she can beat Wang, then I think she stands a realistic chance of winning the gold," said former international Madhumita Bisht.
In the men's section, Parupalli Kashyap is placed in Group B. He will play against Vietnam's Tien Minh Nguyen and Belgium's Yuhan Tan.
Kashyap has beaten Nguyen twice before, but also lost to him thrice. He has a 1-1 record against Tan. If Kashyap wins his group, he is likely to play former All England runner up Kenichi Tago of Japan in the pre-quarters.
TOUGH DRAW FOR DOUBLES STARS
Unlike singles, all the groups in the doubles events are of four teams each and the top two teams from each group would qualify for the quarter-finals.
World championship bronze medallists Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa have been paired with world no. 5 Mizuki Fujii/Reika Kakiiwa of Japan, world number 10 Chen Wen Hsing/Chien Yu Chin of Chinese Taipei and world number 13 Shinta Mulia Sari/Yao Lei of Indonesia in Group B.
While Jwala- Ashwini have a 1-2 head-to-head record with the first two pairs, they have never beaten the Indonesian pair before.
In the mixed doubles, Jwala and V Diju are in the 'group of death' with all their three opponents having won a world championship or an Olympic gold before.
The world number 13 combination has been placed in Group C along with 2009 world champions Thomas Laybourn and Kamilla Rytter Juhl of Denmark, third seed Liliyana Natsir and Tontowi Ahmad of Indonesia and world number nine Lee Yong Dae and Ha Jung Eun of Korea.
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